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Friday, May 27, 2022

Desert roses will soon win your heart | Gardening advice

It’s always fascinating to me as a botanist that, out of the estimated 400,000 plant species on Earth, humans have become so fixated on a certain number. We have spent generations ingeniously nurturing them in new ways, and dedicated millions of acres of land and incalculable resources to growing them, all for the simple joy of admiring their appearance.

Particularly wonderful is that this obsession with specific plants is often culturally bound. While the Japanese have centuries-old nurseries growing moss cultivars, in Britain the only thing you can buy in a garden centre with the word “moss” on it is moss killer. Yet, one of the great things about globalisation, largely driven by the internet, is that it’s opening up horticultural marvels we have long overlooked. A recent rediscovery of mine is the desert rose, Adenium obesum.

Adeniums are beautiful succulents from the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. They have glossy leaves and wonderfully swollen “mini baobab” trunks – all crowned several times a year with dazzling trumpet-shaped flowers in a huge range of shades. For centuries, the people of Southeast Asia have associated them with wealth and longevity. Their rounded trunks – like full-bellied Buddhas – and tendency to form natural bonsai create the look of ancient trees, even on young specimens. When I was a kid in 1980s Singapore these were as ubiquitous to me as pampas grass in the UK. Objectively very pretty, super easy to grow, and yet just so commonplace they just seemed to blend into the background.

Pot luck: a desert rose shows off its full-bellied trunk.
Pot luck: a desert rose shows off its full-bellied trunk. Photograph: Lathuric/Getty Images

When they started popping up recently on amazing Thai and Indonesian Instagram accounts, however, I was astonished by the miracles that have been achieved with them in the past 30 years. Far from waning, interest in them seems to have reached fever pitch. This has created a huge range of dazzling new flower forms (which to me are a tad on the flashy side), but also amazing pruning and training techniques to maximise their bizarre bonsai forms, like real-life Pokémon.

The simplest technique, which I have successfully experimented with, is to remove the plant from its pot and gently wash off the compost from its spiralling, swollen roots. These can be replanted in bonsai potting mix, exposing the top half to give it a Mandrake-from-Harry-Potter look. This will quickly reroot from the buried section, with the unearthed section turning green within a week or two. Most Southeast Asians position these roots splayed out like the spokes of a wheel to create a neat, symmetrical look, but I love their entangled, primeval appearance, so twist them further.

With the growing interest in succulents and caudex-forming houseplants, some of which have been illegally poached from the wild, adeniums are a perfect sustainable alternative that are easier to grow, cheaper to buy – and have wonderful flowers. Why these aren’t more popular yet here, I have no idea.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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